AFM Race Report - Sears Point (Infineon) Raceway - March 21-23, 2003
(report written April 8, 2003)
Sears Point, Turn 10 during 450 Superbike
© 2003 Gary Rather
This race report is actually a report of activities that started long before the first race weekend. If you wish to read about the race part only, skip to the appropriate section below. Click here for the final results. Otherwise, read on.
Preseason Preparation and a New Bike
I started planning for the 2003 season in early 2002 when I made arrangements with Mike Norman at G-Force to import a Honda VFR400. Mike sparked my interest in the VFR400 in late 2001 when he announced he wanted to import some. I had just bought my FZR400 in 2001 and expected to race it for a couple years before buying a different bike. Initially, it just didn't make sense to buy another new race bike. But as I learned more about the VFR400 (also known as the NC30) I couldn't resist, and put my deposit down for one.
I didn't set any expectations on when it would arrive because I knew that importing a bike was a lengthy process filled with frustration and delays. That's why I had Mike import the bike for me. I'm glad I did after seeing what he went through to get the bikes.
In the mean time, I crashed bad in June 2002, practically destroying my FZR400. I was OK, but the bike needed an engine rebuild, the frame straightened, and lots of other little stuff. There was no way I could get it finished in time for the July race. Luck prevailed, and I found a ready to race VFR400 for sale. The bike came with a long list of race parts already installed including several hard to find HRC parts. There were some teething pains on the new bike, but I managed to recover from my DNF in June and finish 4th overall in 450 Superbike, better than I should have expected.
Before the season was even over, Mike Norman and I were already planning for 2003. The import bikes (he brought in five bikes) didn't arrive until late November, but Mike was already designing the new engine. We made plans for a 450cc motor with conservative goals exceeding 80 HP and long term plans for much higher. The plans included some custom rods and pistons that Mike was designing as well as lots of other little details. The parts were ordered and arrangements made to fabricate the custom stuff in late 2002. It seemed there would be plenty of time to get this all done before the first AFM race.
The new body work (paint by ExtremeFX)
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Oh well. At least my first VFR was still ready to race. So, what did I do? I pulled it out of the crowded garage the weekend before the first race, made sure it didn't need anything major and went racing the next weekend. I didn't even get my new body work mounted and painted. I was pretty disappointed. A whole winter had gone by, but this time I had spent a lot of time, effort and money preparing for the new season, yet I still had nothing to show for it.
I wasn't the only one lagging on a new bike. Mike Norman also imported a VFR400 for himself, but his wasn't even close to being ready. He did get his body work painted and at the last moment offered to let me use it for the weekend. His bike and my bike were going to be painted the same anyway, so at least I could show my appreciation for all of G-Force's effort by running the G-Force colors for the weekend. I finally had something to show for my winter's worth of effort!
Michelin decided to toss a wrench in the tire wars this year by offering some significant contingencies for AFM in most classes (paying certificates for 1st through 5th place, with a 1st place winning of $300 in 450 Superbike). Pirelli tires worked very well for me in 2002 (except for some shredding issues), but for 2003 I just couldn't pass up the Michelin deal. Before I could make a decision on the switch, however, I wanted to compare the Michelin tires to Pirelli. I took the opportunity of a February track day to do just that.
Pirelli tires always worked great, seeming to stick better the hotter it got. But, on cooler days (85 degrees or less), they shredded. This didn't affect race results as the tire lasted long enough to get through a race day, but at track days, the rear tire was starting to go away by mid afternoon due to the shredding. It is pretty expensive changing tires that often, and annoying that the rear wouldn't even last an entire day. This was just an issue with the rear. In all cases, the fronts lasted a long time. I would usually change two rear tires before I would change the front (even when the rear didn't shred).
Thunderhill seems to be the hardest on tires, and my test day was a Thunderhill track day. I started the morning with a fresh set of Pirelli tires and changed to Michelin at lunch time. Temperatures were in the 50's in the early morning and reached about 70 degrees for most the day. As expected, the Pirelli rear tire shredded bad on the left (Thunderhill is hardest on the left side of a tire), but the Michelins did not. This result was confirmed again at Sears Point.
Sears tends to work the right side of the tire most, and because the right side of the Pirelli rear was still in good shape I started the day on the same set of Pirelli tires from the February track day. This time, the right side of the Pirelli shredded bad and once again, the Michelin tires did just fine. Temperatures were a little warmer at Sears, but still below 80 degrees all day.
Many say that these issues are related to suspension. Maybe. But, I had shredding issues on both my FZR400 (with Fox shock) early in 2002 and my VFR400 (with Penske shock) last year. I did a lot of playing with suspension settings late 2002. Some settings slowed the shredding, but no setting got rid of it. Often, the settings that shredded the least were also the settings that caused my lap times to drop. In the end, the only conditions that stopped shredding (for both bikes) was warmer temperatures (above 90 degrees).
It may be related to my riding style. I didn't change how I ride to test this theory. Or perhaps it's cold tearing and I just don't warm up the tire enough before romping on it. I did lots of testing to confirm that the shredding is not related to cold tearing. I know many people have gotten past Pirelli shredding. That's good news, but I think that Pirelli needs to do something to the tire compound to resolve this issue.
© 2003 Darron Spohn http://www.photobitstream.com
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By the way, all my notes above are comparing Michelin slicks (super soft compound front and rear) vs. a Pirelli slick front (super soft) and Pirelli DOT rear (soft compound). I ran a Pirelli super soft rear once. It still shredded (more quickly) and didn't seem to offer any more traction than the soft rear. The VFR400 4.5 inch rim is too narrow for a 160 profile tire from Pirelli, so I ran the 150 profile DOT tire (slicks aren't available in 150 size). I never felt any difference in traction running the DOT tire vs. a slick. Michelin, however, has the 16/62-17 slick available, which is a perfect fit for my VFR400 rear wheel.
The final concern about Michelin tires is the warm up characteristics. Many people say that they take longer to warm up, sometimes taking 2 whole laps. Obviously, this isn't good when you only get a single warm up lap before a race. Well, I decided to cheat this issue and bought tire warmers for 2003. Tire warmers are nice. When going out for the warm up lap, there is no squirm at all. It makes the bike feel well planted from the 1st corner. You still can't just romp on it as the warmers don't bring the tires to full temp, but it is close enough to allow 9/10th riding through the first corner and 10/10ths soon after that.
Are tire warmers needed for the Michelin tires? I'm not sure. I did a few practice sessions without pre-warming the tires and the Michelin tires seemed to be plenty warmed up in a single lap, but I didn't push the limits in this regard as I was still getting used to the tires. I get the feeling that on warmer days, there certainly will be no issue with warming them up quickly. As for colder days, I'll have to play with them some more to decide. Regardless, the Michelin tires were working great, and by the end of my testing, I was confident that the Michelin tires were capable of winning races.
Goals for 2003
Goals are important for anything you want to do in life. Certainly, half the reason I race is to set goals for myself and see if I can meet them (sort of racing against myself). I have always considered this more important than how well I do vs. other people. For 2003, this is even more important because I'm getting fast enough that sometimes I can't depend on other people to drive me toward my goals. So, I'll start with my biggest goal.
This is a non-AFM related goal. Race organizations outside of AFM (CCS, WSMC, WERA, OMRRA, etc.) have what they call the lightweight classes. The SV650 dominates the lightweight classes, but 400 and 450 fours are also legal for these classes (the FZR400 used to dominate these classes before the SV650 came out). The SV makes so much torque that even with equal HP figures, the SV just pulls better out of corners compared to a 400 four. This is the main driving factor behind my decision to make a 450cc engine. It's a tall order to meet, considering that SV650s are turning sub 2 minute lap times at Thunderhill and the best I've done so far is 2:03. But, you should always set at least one lofty goal.
Here are my more down to earth goals.
We'll see how things turn out....
Alright, enough of the preseason stuff. How did the racing go?
Friday and Saturday Practice
In order to work out the cob webs of not having raced for 5 months, I started the weekend at the dP Safety School track day on Friday. Sears is a technical track and I have always required a bit more practice there compared to other tracks to get comfortable. The extra time was a great help, but I still wasn't quite as comfortable as I wanted to be by the end of practice on Saturday. I wasn't finding the confidence on the bike I expected. Also, my pit buddy and obligatory track rabbit, Steve Demopolous, who rides an SV650, was still pulling much better lap times than me. I knew that I could and should improve a lot (we normally pull similar lap times), but, it would have to wait until the race. My best practice times were in the 1:52's and high 1:51's. Steve's was below 1:50, though.
I wanted to spend time playing with suspension settings. The rebound on the forks didn't quite feel right, but the bike was exactly as I left it at the end of last season, and it worked great at Sears with these settings. So, I decided to leave the suspension alone and work on other goals, deciding that what I felt was me and not the bike.
By the end of practice, the Michelin tire was going away, but still sticky. Our last practice session was a short 3 lap sprint. With tire warmers, I took the track and was doing race pace by Turn 4. I was glad to have the tire warmers. I treated the 3 lap session as a race pace practice and was happy to see my lowest lap times for the weekend when it was over, even with the rear going away. So, I felt ready for the races the next day. I changed the rear at the end of the day, did a general inspection of the bike and relaxed for the rest of the day.
Did I just use the R word? Yes, I relaxed the rest of the day. That was strange. I've been racing two different bikes (the EX250 and an FZR400) for 3 years. But, this year, I'm only racing the 400. With only one bike to worry about, I seemed to have loads of time to waste and (gasp) clean the bike. It was weird. I liked it.
Finally, it was time to go racing. Doing track days is fun, but racing adds something you just can't get from a track day. The point of racing, in my mind, is to push yourself to do things you wouldn't normally do just by yourself. Racing drives me to try harder, to focus an entire weekend's effort into a couple 8 lap events with the goal of exceeding my previous records and goals. In 2002, Jose Quintanar, Gary Jaehne, Phil Douglas, and Bobby Broussard all did their part to push me, and I ended the season several seconds a lap faster than I started. Looking at the competition in 450 Superbike this year, it seemed that the race season would not be disappointing for continuing my path of improvement.
Ross Wells has come out of retirement. He proved himself to be quite adept at turning laps on his built FZR400 before, and I expected nothing less from him this weekend. I sort of saw Ross as the new Gary in the class (not that Ross and Gary are the same - just similar in the challenge they present to me). Gary isn't racing 450SB this year, but in 2002, he was the voice of experience in the class, having won a championship in 450SB previously, and having a decade of racing experience. By the end of the season, Gary had once again proven his ability to do well, even on a stock machine, winning the 2002 season championship. But, I could see that riding on a stock motorcycle was becoming a limiting factor compared to Jose and I. Most the season, I needed my engine to keep up with Gary, but toward the end of the season, I could see the HP difference starting to become a disadvantage for Gary. Racing with Ross would be similar to racing with Gary. Ross has well over a decade of race experience. I knew Ross would only go as fast as he needed and if (when) he ended up in front of me, it would be up to me to push him to find out just how fast he could go. The difference with Ross is that his engine makes some serious HP. With Gary, I still had the engine advantage to keep up, but this year, that advantage is gone. In fact, since I was still racing on the 72 HP engine from 2002, I became the one on the disadvantaged machine as I have heard Ross's machine makes well over 80 HP.
I don't mean to imply that Ross is my only competition. Absolutely not. Phil Douglas has continually been getting faster and has a tendency to surprise me at what he can do in the corners. Bobby's engine keeps getting more powerful, coinciding with his improved skill. Chris McGrail had a rocky 2002, but if he gets his FZR sorted out, he'll be giving me heck. Plus, there are a few other "unknowns" - people I've been told about or that I know about, but I don't know what to expect from them. One I'm very curious about is Dave Mones, who is racing a Motomophed SV600. Dave won a 450 SB race last year on a BROS 400 (a 400cc Hawk GT650), but was DQ'ed because his engine cases were not actually BROS 400 cases (they were Hawk cases, which are exactly the same. Motomorphic is helping him campaign a Japanese SV400 which is being punched out to 600cc. The most built SV650s are tough to beat on a 400 four, especially when ridden by fast people. Dave Mones is fast, and so is the SV650. My bit buddy, Steve Demopolous, rides an SV650 (placing in the top 5 consistently in AFM 650 twins), and his bike has always been a good challenge to get around. So, it'll be interesting to see what Dave can do on his SV600. Alas, it wasn't ready for this weekend, so he competed on his FZR400 instead. Another person I'm watching is Paul Yoshimune. He's a relatively new racer and new to 450SB and the VFR400, but he's learning fast and he finished 8th in 250 Superbike last year on an Aprilia 250. Paul will also be riding with a G-Force 450cc VFR400 engine like mine.
Given the newness of the season, Ross having limited practice and lots of his own cob webs to cut through, Dave's SV600 missing in action, my grid position advantage and a few other details, I figured if I was going to win a 450SB race, this weekend would be my easiest opportunity. So, I entered the Sunday races feeling very optimistic.
450 Superbike Race
I hate race starts. I consistently proved my poort ability to get a good start in 2002. As I lined up for the race start, however, this wasn't pressing on my mind too much. The new clutch (the correct parts finally!) was working well and I felt confident I could get a good start.
The front row was (from left to right), Phil Douglas, myself, Bobby Broussard, Chris McGrail, and Dave Norgard. When the green flag fell, Bobby pulled out the torque and got the hole shot (I need to pull one of his spark plug wires!). Behind him was Phil and then myself. I decided I needed to be in the lead by Turn 7 or the fast people from behind would be all over me in no time. I got on Phil's tail through the Carousel, but didn't pull out the corner speed I wanted. It was a drag race to T7, which I won only because of my engine. I was on the inside and in the better position. I went for the brakes and was alarmed to see Phil go at least 10 feet deeper into the corner before even touching his brakes. It was a wake up call that I still had several cob web to get rid of. I managed to stay ahead of him only because I was in the more advantageous position.
Now in 2nd place, I set my sights on Bobby. I knew I could pass him, but it was a matter of how long it would take and how many of the others would come up behind me. I've been there before, about ready to make a pass only to be denied by someone from behind passing me first. If I remember right, I got a better drive coming out of T11 and passed him on the brakes going into T1.
There I was, leading an AFM race for the first time. I felt pretty comfortable about it compared to what you might expect because I had led some CCS races last year. Not that it should matter, though, because at the CCS races, there wasn't a 40 person grid chasing me down. The CCS experience was enough that I wasn't stressed, and therefore didn't start making mistakes which I would have expected. What did feel weird was to see a completely open track ahead of me. No one to pass, no lapped traffic, just clean clear open track. I managed to maintain my pace, even without someone to chase, but I had no idea what was happening behind me. That lasted for about 3 laps when Ross woke me up from my bliss, passing me on the brakes into turn 7 on lap 4 or 5.
450 Superbike - 2nd Place
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The laps were winding down, so I needed to make my move. On the 2nd to last lap, I got on the gas early coming out of 8a and held it longer through 9 and 10. It worked. I had enough momentum that I should have been able to shoot up next to him on the inside and hopefully out brake him. Just as I found my brake marker, though, I notice a yellow flag. I couldn't believe it. "Where's the incident?" I thought. Maybe I could time it right and pass him right after the incident. There was no incident. It must have been someone that blew T11, but had already re-entered the track. So, I had to back out and wait until I could clearly see no flag at the next station. I couldn't make the pass attempt.On the final lap, I wanted to try it again, but I got separated a bit too much due to traffic. I decided to give in and backed out enough to make sure I would at least finish. Second place was better than doing something stupid and crashing out of the first race of the season. So, Ross finished first and I was second. Third place was no where to be seen behind us, but it was Bobby Broussard, Dave Mones, Eddie Lee, Phil Douglas and Chris McGrail (taking 7th). Of note, is Eddie Lee, on the Lippman Racing RVF400 that Gary Jaehne used in 2002. I know Eddie has some skill, and putting him on a good bike seems to have helped him a lot. Maybe Eddie will be chasing me down all season as well. What did I say about the unknowns?
Formula I Race
There's no rest for the weary. I prefer that Formula I comes before 450 SB so I can use it for practice, but FI is often a chaotic race. I risk being taken out when I race FI, so I was glad that today it came after 450SB. Of course, it came right after 450SB. I ran back to the pits after 450SB for a splash of gas and headed right back out for the warm up lap for FI.
I consistently finished about 30th in FI last year. FI allows 600cc and 750cc fours as well as open twins. Having about half to 2/3rds the horse power of most of my competition, it is hard to do much better. Its the starts where I get left behind. There are, however, plenty of bikes close to my own in power (SV650s and 250 two-strokes are common in the class).
I was gridded 9th for this first race because of my points from last year. It's unlikely I'll ever finish 9th in this race, but I was hopeful that the 2nd row start would give me an edge up on the chaotic start I normally see in this race. I was so wrong!
The green flag flew and I got a good start.... for a 400 surrounded by way more powerful bikes. But, that fell apart as we hit turn 2. Half the riders in front of me halted, pulled out their kick stands and started to light up cigarettes. OK, maybe not, but it sure felt like that. While I sat there waiting for them to twist the throttle, a freeway of bikes were going by on the outside. So much for my 2nd row start. Even worse, I switched to a reverse shift pattern this year. I'm about 95% comfortable with it, but every now and then, in situations like this, I shift the wrong way. I shifted up two gears accidentally and the engine had no power. Now I was the one taking a break at the apex of T2 while the 2nd half of the FI grid flew by me.
I nursed my bike through T2 while I frantically shifted down to 1st gear (4 shifts!). Finally I had power and I could go. What a disaster. I think reverse shift is great, but I still need to internalize how to shift in these situations of total chaos.
I got going and managed to pass several people. Eventually, I came across an SV650, the guy that had been pitting next to me all weekend, Matt Lai, #138. Matt had been very tentative on Saturday because of the new corners, so I thought it would be easy to pass him. It took me about a lap to get around him, and it wasn't even close to easy. Apparently Matt had figured things out. What do I keep saying about those SV650? They are fast. I finished FI in 25th place, much better than I should have expected after that start.
I guess the start shouldn't bother me that much. Looking at the lap times, I finished about where I should have. So, even if I had gotten a good start, I probably wouldn't have been very many postitions ahead of where I finished.
As I said, I figured this weekend would be my easiest opportunity to win 450 SB. Alas, Ross remembered all too well how to ride, so my kudos go out to Ross for being out of racing for three years and coming back to win not only 450 SB, but also 450 Production later in the day. Congrats Ross! As other riders get their bikes figured out and their skills dialed in, winning 450 SB will only get harder from here. But, I'm optimistic that I can do it. Some may say that beating Ross is going to be very hard, but it isn't impossible. Besides, you have to believe in yourself in anything you want to do well, and I do believe that I can win 450 SB. Now I just have to do it.
I have spent a lot of time in the last 9 months talking about the VFR400 as well as G-Force. Some of this has been because G-Force is sponsoring me this year and because G-Force has become a major supporter of the VFR/RVF400. But, mostly, it is because Mike Norman is the best mechanic I have worked with, and the VFR400 is just a cool machine. I wouldn't recommend anything or anyone if I didn't believe in them or the product. Mike loves Honda V-fours and his desire to work with these bikes comes mostly from that love. Since I bought my VFR400 last summer, I too have fallen in love with the bike. It is amazing to me that something that was designed 15 years ago is still such a modern feeling and performing machine today. Because of the capabilities of this platform, Mike Norman has spent probably more time than it is worth figuring out how to make it better. It has been a lot of fun and a great learning experience for me as well and I'm very excited to see the results as they come to fruition this year. Even though I didn't have much new physical evidence to show on my VFR400 this first race weekend (just new paint), the development effort through the winter on this bike has been extensive. I have to throw a huge thanks to Mike Norman for putting in the time and effort, inviting me into his shop, teaching me some things, and building a support structure for these bikes. Racing an import bike can be hard, but G-Force is making it easy. Thanks Mike.
I also want to thank Alex Florea of AF Motorsports and Michelin, Alex for pushing for an excellent contingency deal for AFM, and Michelin for providing some good tires. I'm still learning on them, but I'm very happy with them so far. Thanks also to Joe and Paul at Motojava for doing a random draw payout for 450 Superbike. Finally, thanks to Lockhart Phillips for their support through the Team Privateer program. LP has also been a big sponsor for certain CCS events. Every little bit helps.
Unofficial results for some races (dBcom printouts)
Official Results for all races
Addendum - Suspension Settings and Tires
I did a track day at Sears Point on April 3rd with the plan of working on suspension settings during the day. I realized that my rebound screws were all the way in. Oh! No wonder the forks didn't feel right all during the AFM race weekend. My rebound was maxed out (they used to be set on the 6th click out). I made some adjustments and, finally, the bike was feeling like it did at the end of last season. I can't believe I did the entire AFM race weekend with those settings. Apparenetly, the rebound screws got screwed all the in when I removed the fork caps to do an oil change.
I said earlier that the Michelin tires seem to slide more abruptly than compared to the Pirelli. After making the rebound change, the bike handled much better and by the end of the day, I was comfortable sliding the rear tire. The slide characteristics felt very good and pretty close to what I expect from Pirelli tires. It was a pretty cold day most of the day, but we got some sun that warmed up the track at times. I had opportunities to try the tires on everything from cold, slightly moist track, to cold dry track, to warm track (as good as what we had at the AFM race weekend). The tires did well in all cases, sliding no more than is normal for a cold Sears Point. The slides were predictable and linear.
I also did a couple sessions without the tire warmers and it took two full laps to warm up the tires, but given how cold it was most the day, this would have been the result for any tire.
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